We already know that Josh Heupel will be the head coach of the Tennessee Vols in 2021, but who will be on his inaugural coaching staff?
That’s an important question that will play a huge part in how successful Heupel is as the head coach of the Vols.
Based on some reports, it appears that Heupel will be bringing his entire offensive staff with him to Tennessee. This might be a red flag to some fans after the Butch Jones debacle (when he brought most of his Cincinnati staff with him), but it shouldn’t be. Heupel is an offensive mastermind. And his staff at UCF seemed to gel pretty well. I don’t think bringing them along is a bad idea.
Anyway, here’s how I think Tennesee’s staff could look this coming season.
Alex Golesh — Offensive coordinator/tight ends: Heupel confirmed on WMNL in Knoxville on Thursday that he’ll be calling plays in 2021, so this hire isn’t quite as important. Jeff Lebby, the current offensive coordinator at Ole Miss, is close with Heupel, but he will likely be one of UCF’s top targets to replace Heupel. There’s really no reason for Lebby to leave Ole Miss for Tennessee (especially since Lebby wouldn’t be calling plays at UT). Golesh came to UCF in 2020 after serving as the tight ends coach on Matt Campbell’s staff at Iowa State. Golesh, who was born in Russia, graduated from Ohio State and spent with the Buckeyes as a student assistant, so he knows what “big-time” football is all about.
Glen Elarbee — Offensive line: This is one of the most important hires for Tennessee. The Vols haven’t had consistently good offensive line play since Sam Pittman was in Knoxville in 2012. Elarbee, who is a former Broyles Award semi-finalist, was with Heupel at Missouri in 2016 and 2017, so he has SEC experience (he was also a graduate assistant at LSU in 2007). That will be key for this staff because recruiting in the SEC is a lot different than recruiting at UCF.
Joey Halzle — Quarterbacks: Halzle is a relatively young coach (he just promoted to quarterbacks coach at UCF in 2020), but he works well with Heupel which will be important for quarterback development. Heupel is a QB whisperer and he needs a quarterbacks coach who shares his vision. That guy is Halzle, who happens to be a former Oklahoma quarterback.
Matt Merritt — Running backs: Merritt was just recently hired by Heupel at UCF, so it makes sense that he would follow him to Tennessee. Merritt was hired by Heupel after stints at James Madison and Elon. He was also a graduate assistant at Ohio State from 2013-2015. This is a bit of an underwhelming move (if it ends up officially being the move), but we’ll have to give Heupel the benefit of the doubt for now.
Kodi Burns — Wide receivers: Burns was just hired by Heupel at UCF, so again it’s a move that makes sense. Burns will bring the staff some nice SEC experience. He played at Auburn and he was on Guz Malzahn’s staff for five seasons as a wide receivers coach, co-offensive coordinator, and passing game coordinator.
Nick Toth — Special teams: It would be odd to have a coach dedicated entirely to special teams, but that was the case with Toth at UCF. This is a guy that I think Heupel wants to keep on his staff. He could also coach a few positions on the defensive side of the ball (he coached outside linebackers at Texas A&M in 2010 and 2011), it just depends on how the other hires work out.
Zach Arnett — Defensive coordinator/linebackers: I don’t think Kevin Steele will be sticking around at Tennessee, which is a shame. And I doubt Heupel will be able to land someone like Will Muschamp. Arnett, considered a rising star in the business, has some SEC experience after working at Mississippi State this past season. He interviewed for the defensive coordinator job at LSU, but the Tigers ultimately went in another direction. He’d be a solid option to lead Heupel’s defense.
Brick Haley — Defensive line: Haley was with Heupel at Missouri and he has past coaching experience at Texas, LSU, and Mississippi State. And he’s available. Essentially, I think Haley is a no-brainer for this staff. The recruiting experience he would provide would be invaluable. He’s also a pretty good position coach, despite getting let go from Mizzou recently.
Willie Martinez — Safeties: Here’s a familiar name. Martinez was on Butch Jones’ staff at Tennessee from 2013-2016. He’s been with Heupel at UCF since 2018. Martinez has plenty of SEC coaching experience, with previous stops at Auburn and Georgia. He also coached at Oklahoma alongside Heupel for a couple of years.
Jason Washington — Cornerbacks: It would make sense for Arnett to bring at least one coach from Mississippi State with him. Washington doesn’t have a strong connection to Mike Leach, so he makes the most sense. Washington coached at Texas for three seasons before joining Mississippi State’s staff in 2020.
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